Karen Nimmo is a clinical psychologist based in Wellington.
ANALYSIS: Everyone wants to be happy.
As a psychologist, I’ve asked hundreds of people what they want out of life, and by far the most common answer is “happiness,” even though they don’t know what that looks like to them.
In 2022, however, happiness seems even more out of reach. With the world in turmoil, the cost of living rising, Covid still hovering and a daily barrage of grim news, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by doom and gloom.
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But it’s also a trap, because it makes us believe that life is hopeless, that everything is going wrong, that things will never get better, and that our lives are at the mercy of fate.
Research indicates that approximately 50% of our happiness levels are biologically fixed, 10-20% are due to life circumstances (eg health, wealth, income, occupation, marital status, our enclosed environments). Trauma or difficulty, due to stressful events or a personal struggle with, say, health, work, or relationships, erodes happiness, just as positive events improve well-being.
But the rest is shaped by thoughts, emotions and actions, how we handle ourselves in the world. This is the part we can most seek to “control” – and when we do, it can make a huge difference in our lives.
Happiness is not the right goal
For many, happiness depends on a change in their circumstances. So they don’t see it as something they have right now, but as something they will get when, for example, they earn more, change jobs, find a partner, have a baby, travel abroad. stranger or will lose weight.
The problem is that you cannot “achieve” happiness. It’s a feeling, which means it comes and goes, rather than staying in a steady state. This is why even when you have achieved your goals, the positive feelings are often fleeting, they are not lasting.
The other problem with the pursuit of happiness is that when you are unhappy or mentally ill, it can make you feel like a failure. Or that all those people smiling on your social media feeds are much happier than you. When they’re not, they just don’t post pictures of their life at 2 a.m. when the baby is crying or they’re arguing with their partner or wondering how to pay the bills that are piling up .
The research is filled with the main psychological attributes of happy people and they don’t change much from year to year: feeling good about yourself, having close and supportive relationships, appreciating what you have, feeling you progress, have a sense of being in charge of your life.
But in 2022, we need to get back to basics, to practical tools that you can apply to your life as it is right now.
Here are my favorites.
Create a new healthy habit
The change doesn’t have to be drastic, and you don’t have to “motivate” yourself either. Adding a healthy new habit to your life is powerful, even if it’s small. Good habits trump willpower every time.
Keep your issues current and specific
Difficult emotions are valid when you are struggling. Acknowledge them. But don’t “globalize” your problems, don’t let them get bigger than they are. Losing your job doesn’t mean your career (or your life) is ruined. A breakup doesn’t mean you’ll never love again. Keep your problems in perspective.
Limit engagement with bad news
There is a lot of noise in the world; lots of tough stories, lots of opinions and rants. So if you’re a phone addict, keep an eye on your associated stress levels. Too much gloom will depress you. Be selective.
Create warm relationships
Human connection – intimate bonds and a sense of belonging – promotes well-being. Strive to be empathetic, interested, a good listener, the person who tries to warm the lives of everyone you care about. Maybe even people who don’t.
Be present and wholeheartedly
Halftone prevents you from getting the most out of anything; it is an obstacle to reaching the “flow” zone, to fully engaging with someone or anything and for joy. Whatever you do and whoever you are, be present. All-in. Two feet, not one.
Immerse yourself in the small pleasures
Happiness is not limited to big events and achievements. A lot happens in the dust and dirt of everyday life. Don’t wait for an excuse to pop the balloons. Celebrate everything, big, small or in between. Laugh when you can. Treat your days with respect, as if they don’t come back. Because they are not.
Novelist Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets to a happy life is continuous little treats.” Keep looking for the treats.